I struggle with the idea of inaction. Letting things stand. Finding the strength to endure and not directly confront injustices in the moment.
And because I feel compelled to respond to almost every moment of my life, I’m kept from considering the core motivation behind my actions, as I oftentimes act out of fear.
Fear that I’ll be taken as a fool if I let a transgression stand. Or fear that I’ll be perceived as weak for not fighting back.
Lao Tsu’s Tao Te Ching presents a series of eighty poems that again and again remind me that this desire driving my actions is often directing me towards my own folly.
The path Lao Tsu recommends is one of virtuous inaction. I can’t count the amount of times Lao Tsu suggests doing nothing, thinking nothing, draining your desires, emptying your cup and accepting the world as it passes around you.
Not as you fear it might be, or as you fear it might see you.
True acceptance feels foreign these days. Taking to the streets, carrying signs and shouting “no” feels culturally appropriate, but it is a surefire way to neglect the things we can actually change around us.
Even if we feel like we’re righting wrongs by jumping to action, we might be depriving ourselves the stillness required to truly change ourselves and our surroundings for the better.
I’ve felt an overwhelming social pressure to be a hero for those in need, to look outward and defend those less fortunate… To ignore my own needs, and say I am privileged while doing so. In general, I’ve found the motivations behind these actions to still be driven by something closer to selfish desire than anything truly virtuous.
Lao Tsu instructs us how to be the reluctant hero. One who is slow to action, and reserved in judgement.
“Nowadays people shun mercy but try to be brave;
They abandon economy but try to be generous;
They do not believe in humility but always try to be first.
This is certain death.”
I’d love to blame smartphones or some passing politician for our society remaining in this ego-driven selfish state, but it seems Lao Tsu found this folly in his fellow man six-thousand years ago as well!
So, that might be why the messages in this brisk read sooth my mind, which is often overwrought with anxious hypotheticals. The universal condition of our existence over time, then and now. The hurdles from thousands of years ago seem oddly familiar, so it would seem our solutions might be just as timeless as well.
“It is more important
To see the simplicity,
To realize our true nature,
To cast off selfishness
And temper desire.”
The poems of Tao Te Ching remind us of the elegance found in minimizing action wherever possible. “A great tailor makes few cuts.” The virtue of accepting our own unimportance, and minimizing the amount of desire we hold in our hearts.
For someone struggling with anxiety, I never wanted to consider my own unimportance. But as Lao Tsu writes: “The truth often sounds paradoxical.”
Strangely, feeling less important doesn’t drive me deeper into self loathing, it actually lightens the load that my stupid brain can unilaterally assign to anything in my past, present or future.
Considering the fact that these poems were written so long ago, nearly 6,000 years by some accounts, the message stands the test of time. And when I release my foolish desire for control, and I let that realization in, I’m afforded a wave of calm that is worth its weight in gold.
I recommend reading the 2011 translation by Jane English and Gia-Fu Feng, it really makes the ideas found here shine.